San Diego is known for its wide array of food options, and the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown is absolutely no exception.
If you’re on the hunt for some good, locally sourced food, don’t miss your chance to take a bite over at Cafe 21. The line is always around the block, but for good reason. The tapas-styled dishes are flavorful without being too rich, and the specialty coffees and drinks are a sight for aesthetic-loving eyes.
The restaurant itself is picturesque, and the decor makes it feel like an upscale barn with a chic design. There’s also a little shop in the front that includes fruit brought in directly off the farm.
Cafe 21 has held its ground as one of San Diego’s best organic restaurants for well over a decade at this point. They originally opened their doors in the University Heights/North Park area back in 2007, with their location in the Gaslamp coming in 2011 and ultimately growing into their main hub.
Chef Leyla Javadov is at the helm of the vision along with her husband, Emran, and everything that comes out of this little eatery is made fresh from scratch. The couple hails from Azerbaijan and uses the influence of their homeland mixed with their inspiration from their time in California to create all of the dishes.
While the farm-to-table concept wasn’t as popular when they first opened in the mid-2000s, the colorful drinks, and variety of food that pack a flavor punch has helped Cafe 21 become and remain one of San Diego’s most innovative restaurants around.
The sustainability aspect is what the Javadov’s pride themselves on the most.
Besides the fruit coming freshly off of their farm (which will provide you with one of the best fresh-squeezed orange juices of your life), they only work with locally sourced and organic vendors.
The chickens are antibiotic-free from Mary’s Free Range Chickens. The rest of the meat is hormone free, the produce that doesn’t come from their farm is sourced locally, and the seafood is wild. On top of that, they’re able to accommodate any dietary restrictions as well, covering the entire spectrum from vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free.
Of all of the food they produce, they’re extremely proud of their bread. Like everything else, it’s made from scratch, but the yeast comes from the natural yeast found in organic grapes and is based on Chef Leyla’s grandmother’s recipe. They intentionally avoid using commercial yeast because of its negative impact on our stomachs, and it translates into a uniquely tasting bread that you sincerely cannot find anywhere else.
All of the syrups found in the coffee and specialty cocktails are also made from scratch in-house, meaning through, and through, every taste of anything that passes through your lips is as fresh and sustainable as possible.
I didn’t know what to expect coming here, but I’m so glad that I did. I was a little intimidated by the line at first, but we were able to grab a table for two in about 30 minutes on a Saturday morning.
Since the food is served in the tapas style, we decided to try out a few different things to see what all of the fuss was about. The Short Rib Omelet was somehow rich and light at the same time, and the fresh bread is something I wish I could eat on a daily basis. The French Toast came with fresh fruit as well and also packed a punch with every bite.
We asked our server what we couldn’t miss out on, and he suggested the Shrimp Corn Cake and the Dutch Pancakes. The pancakes had some sort of custard-like substance in the middle that was incredible, and the caramel glaze on top was out of this world. While I did enjoy the corn cake, I’m an unfortunate person who has a gene that makes cilantro taste like soap, so the cilantro-based sauce the corn cake was on top of left me focusing on the rest of the dishes. However, the pieces I did try that didn’t have the sauce were awesome, and the anti-cilantro gene is one of my worst enemies in the food world.
To drink, I opted for the Peas of Mind coffee with espresso, butterfly pea, lavender syrup, with almond and coconut milk. It was so hard to choose because every drink is like a work of art, and all the different flavor choices provide such a wide array of options.
While I didn’t imbibe in any of the libations, the ones I saw hitting the tables around us were also carefully crafted, and the Bloody Marys have an entire meal on top as the garnish. They also have some great flight options, so there’s always something to hit home with anybody.
As of this writing, Cafe 21 does not accept reservations. That may change in the future, as that was a practice they held prior to COVID, but for now, anticipate a solid wait.
They are open daily from 8 am-3 pm. Their subsequent location in University Heights has the same hours, but they are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Keep an eye out, though, as live entertainment and dinner used to be part of the appeal here, and as we move further forward from the pandemic, they may end up bringing that back, as well.
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